The Malbone Street Train Wreck

by John Delach

November 1st marks the 100th anniversary of the most devastating rapid transit disaster in our nation’s history. Ninety-seven New Yorkers lost their lives when Edward Luciano, a novice motorman crashed his train. Luciano had never piloted a train before that fateful day. He had been drafted into this service because of a wildcat strike by the motormen’s union.


Last September, I joined a walking tour of the crash site sponsored by the NYC Transit Museum with by my son-in-law, Tom and his eleven-year-old son, Cace. Kathryn, our young guide filled in many gaps in the narrative as I knew it. “The more I learned about Luciano, the more I came to sympathize with him. For example, Luciano was recovering from the Spanish Flu and he had buried his middle daughter, a victim of the flu, two days earlier. He was heart-heavy believing he infected her. “


Normally a train dispatcher, Luciano started his first run at 5 am that morning after receiving minimal instructions. He was due to be relieved at 4:30 pm but was ordered to drive one more train back to Brighton Beach from Manhattan. Stress, fatigue and the coming darkness took their toll and complicated braking system so befuddled the rookie motorman that he made several serious mistakes. Almost 400 of the 1,000 riders abandoned this train due to his obvious incompetence before he wrecked it.


Just before the right-of-way descended into the Prospect Park Station it reached a complex passage, a tight “S” curve that had only opened 13 days earlier. A small sign just outside the tunnel entrance posted the speed limit as 6 miles-per-hour. Accounts of Luciano’s true speed vary but it was estimated between 40 and 50 MPH.


The front trucks of the first car remained on the rails leaving Luciano uninjured. The rear third of that car was damaged. Cars two and three were destroyed as their wooden exteriors and glass windows splintered and shattered as they smashed into the tunnel’s steel columns and concrete sides and ceiling. The fourth car escaped serious damage and the fifth uncoupled coming to rest outside the tunnel, partly derailed but upright and intact.


Most of victims were killed in the second and third cars that rocketed into oblivion. Ordinary fixtures turned into missiles, Rattan seats, the bars that supported the leather straps for standees, window panes and glass ripped into the occupants. The wooden framing, sides and even the roof split open and shattered killing many trapped in wreck. Others were thrown from the train against the steel and concrete tunnel. The coroner’s office listed the cause of death for 88 of the 93 souls who died that day as being due to massive blunt force. (Four passengers subsequently passed in hospitals.)


First responders faced difficult challenges when they arrived at Malbone Street. The wreck was partially in an open-cut trench about than 100 feet below the surface and partially in the tunnel. Ladders had to be procured. A block and tackle system had to be rigged to remove the seriously injured victims needing stretchers. The Spanish Flu outbreak complicated rescues. Ambulances were in short-supply and hospitals were already overcrowded. The dead were set aside and ultimately removed to an armory for identification.


The public was furious, and the Brooklyn District Attorney indicted Luciano and five BRT executives for manslaughter. The defense forced a change in venue from Brooklyn to Mineola, Long Island for obvious reasons. After lengthy trials, none were found guilty.


For this and other long festering reasons, the Brooklyn Rapid Transit was forced into receivership. Ultimately, re-christened, the Brooklyn Manhattan Transit, Management of the BMT eventually compensated the victims with a fund of $1.4 million, ($18 million today.)


Malbone Street ceased to exist. Forever tainted by the horrific loss of life, city fathers re-christened it, Empire Boulevard


All that remains of the line is a short, three-station shuttle that moves passengers between Prospect Park and Fulton Street. The wall of death also remains but is in limited revenue service.


No plaques or recognition. Perhaps the one hundredth anniversary will correct that?


Kathryn pointed out that when Luciano emerged from his motorman’s booth, his obvious path of escape was to open the front door. He stepped off the front platform and walked 142 feet away from the wreck to the Prospect Park Station without having to look back at the carnage.


When Luciano opened the operator’s compartment, he ran into a dazed passenger, Charles Darling who asked what had happened? Darling subsequently reported to the police that Luciano, in an incredible moment of candor replied, “I don’t know. I lost control of the damn thing.”